AGDC 07: Star Wars Galaxies Interview

Good communication is the key to success in nearly every endeavor. No company knows that better than Sony Online Entertainment.

It’s been nearly two years since players of Star Wars Galaxies were confronted with the now infamous NGE, or “New Game Experience”, which heralded sweeping changes to gameplay, massive cancellations and a general outcry for a rollback among those stayed.

There followed months of general silence from the SOE development team, other than assurances that a rollback wouldn’t happen and that the team was committed to moving forward.

Nine months after the change, Alan Crosby, SOE’s Director of Community Relations, addressed the issue.

“Where did we go wrong?” Crosby wrote.

“Delivery, we failed in our timing and communication. That is where we let you down most, SWG faithful, and for that I truly apologize.”

In the year since Crosby’s post, SOE has made many strides in an effort to reestablish their credibility in the game’s community, both through improved customer service and better communication between the development team and the community.

These efforts have resulted in a series of changes to the game, which, while moving things forward, can also be viewed as the reintegration of things lost in the past.

The introduction of a detailed profession expertise system allowed players to customize their characters, while the Beastmaster system allowed players to once again breed and control their own pets. The House Pack-Up event allowed players to take an active role in freeing up space for new houses and player cities by targeting and clearing abandoned structures.

All of it comes down to an effort to respect the community while striving to deliver a good product.

“(The House Pack-Up) was our way of responding to a customer-initiated request,” said SOE senior brand manager Debysue Wolfcale during the 2007 Austin Game Developers Conference. “We had seen that request and we wanted to respond to it, and it was a really good example of development and community all working together from the get-go.”

The House Pack-Up also afforded former players a chance to return to the game through a 14-day account reactivation.

“We had a tremendous response,” Wolfcale said. “This came on the heels of us implementing the Expertise system. We took each profession and added two additional customization paths for each of those professions, which allows you to customize your character, which was again responding to player requests.”

By far the largest change resulting from these newfound communication skills was the addition of the Beastmaster expertise system, which is open to all players, regardless of profession, and incorporates elements of two older professions – Creature Handler and Bioengineer – that were removed during the NGE. But it’s not just reintroducing old code.

“What we’re doing is, like the Beastmaster compared to the Creature Handler,” said John Blakely, SOE-Austin’s vice president of development. “The Beastmaster is a lot more deep, a lot more integrated into the gameplay, a lot more supportive of the other professions, and things like that.

“You know, being fans of the game ourselves, we wanted to get those things back in. but it’s not just a revisit; it’s an improvement. I mean if you look at the players who have returned during this housing pack up event, what you get is a lot of people saying, ‘Wow, this is a lot better than CH.’

“I really have a lot of fond memories of that, but the system the way it is now is a step up, and that’s really what we wanted to do, re-envision it, and reinterpret it into a more integrated and cohesive system. Make it better. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”

And, of course, make players – both returning veterans and current subscribers – a little happier along the way.

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“There is a certain flavor to Galaxies,” Blakely said, “and there is certainly a very complicated and dramatic story with this product. But that’s part of what makes it great, so we wanted to take those highlights, those nostalic highlights and bring them back in a better sense, under a new context of the game.”

And, Blakely said, it won’t stop there.

“We have a very focused team right now,” Blakely said. “They’re all fans of the game, they all play the game, so they’re all trying to try draw in those pieces and try to focus on what’s important to the players and what the players like to do.”

As with many massively multiplayer online games – especially those that have been out for a while, SWG players like to collect things. The game’s next major update, Chapter 7, will address that.

“One of the big pillars of this chapter is going to be the collection system,” Blakely said. “You’ll see with the collection systems an amazing series of quests. You can take collections to start collections to start collections.

And so, the reason we’re doing it like that is to span all the level ranges, all professions, and just totally have this ripple effect where we can build in, feather in all these different types of content. I mean, these are going to be fun. There’s going to be stories behind these collections, there are going to be places to explore in the world – it’s just gonna kinda be this massive quest system that kind of compounds on itself.”

Initially, Blakely said, the team will be adding 100 collections, each with it’s own special reward.

“That’ll just be a tremendous amount of activity for people,” Blakely said. “A lot of server firsts. People to pursue, places to explore, objects to gather. A lot of rewards that people are gonna be jonesing for.

“With each new chapter we’re going to be layering in more.”

Along with the new content under the collections system, players will also see a new style of quest, Heroic Encounters.

“One of Galaxies’ strengths is the sandbox,” Blakely said. “The strength of the sandbox product is that it has all of these systems that build interdependencies with each other or this kind of compound effect. As we put one or two more pieces in, it ripples out, and so it goes exponentially in terms of what the activity is to the player.

“Heroic Encounters are part of that. Maybe in a heroic encounter you get a drop that starts a collection, and you have to get a trader to finish a piece for that collection, and the trader does that part for you, and he starts a collection based on doing the crafting for you on that collection.”

On top of all that, players can expect to see some familiar faces and places after the update.

“We’re also going to be bringing back some locations,” Blakely said, “revisiting some that have either been removed, or adjusted or changed and bringing them back. Moving their story lines forward a little bit. So there going to be a lot of familiar places to a previous player or an existing player who’s been around for a while, as well as the new players.

“That’s kind of been our approach, kind of trying to bring those special elements back.”

Along with the most special element of all – the players themselves.

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